This is the question I was supposed to answer at the Orthodox Jewish Homeschooling Conference.
And it's the answer I feel most badly about not answering clearly and in depth.
Perhaps the reason I skirted so much around the issue is that I'm not actually qualified to answer it yet. I did unschool Chana for limudei kodesh completely until 3rd grade. I am unschooling Elazar and Jack completely at the moment. But they are almost 6 and 3. So there isn't much going on. Next year Elazar will be in first grade, and I fully expect him not to pick up skills next year. He actually asked me this morning when he was going to learn to read. And I told him he can learn to read whenever he wants. He said, eyes wide, "You will teach me to read right now?" I said, sure. He smiled, his eyes glazed over briefly, as I imagine he was imagining the glorious world of literacy. Then he looked at me and said, "Nah, I don't want to learn how to read yet." And he ran off.
So I am not actually in any way qualified, via experience, to answer how unschooled children acquire skills.
However, that doesn't mean I don't have some thoughts on the subject, which I regret not having articulated more clearly at the conference.
Points I mentioned:
- Many children become interested a little before bar/bat mitzva age, when they realize at age 11 or 12 that various halachic responsibilities and obligations are coming up soon.
- Unschooled children learn skills later, but more quickly and efficiently.
- You can always start unschooling and catch up later when you get nervous, at around 9 or 10. There is still plenty of time to teach them all the skills they need. (I did that with Chana but I wish I had confidence to risk it because I think a lot of unschooling really flowers as they get old enough to truly take responsibility for their education, which happens after bar and bas mitzva.)
- As you do a lot of learning outside, you do show them the text ("See? This is an asnachta" or "Look how Rashi says this word here") and make it clear that you are reading in the original language, and how learning in the original language is more accurate and more nuanced than translations.
- You have conversations about how when they are ready to learn to read they will be able to read it inside. And when they are ready, they will put in the time and practice and get good at translation. This way, they grow up thinking that as soon as they are willing to put in the time and effort (which is under their control and their will), they will do so and successfully gain skills.
- Many people are able to gain skills very quickly (in a matter or 2 or so years) when they are motivated. And in the meantime, your child can have an awesomely fun childhood.
But I really didn't speak about the concept that is dearest to my heart and perhaps the most fundamental.
All of these are predicated on the assumption that your child will WANT to gain skills when he or she is older. That your child feels Torah is interesting, valuable, relevant, and desirable. As an unschooler, this should be your unwavering guiding goal and everything should emanate from that.